Plenty of Time To Make Derby Choices

Photo By GARRY JONES | Contributing Photographer

Fewer than seven days remain until names are dropped in the entry box for the 138th runnings of both the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. With that in mind, some thoughts on pressing questions regarding both races.

Who will be the Derby favorite?
Three weeks ago, my answer would have been the nearly white Hansen – if he won the Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland. Then it appeared the Bodemeister might be the bettor’s choice after his scorching 9 ¼-length victory in the Arkansas Derby.

Now I believe the fans might end up rallying around Union Rags, the Michael Matz-trained colt that looked like he might be a strong favorite after a sublime victory in the Fountain of Youth. His bandwagon was jostled a bit by this trouble-plagued third-place finish in the Florida Derby, but if he throws in a sparkler of a work over the Churchill Downs strip later this week, fans of Union Rags will be swooning again.

What might the odds be on the Derby favorite?
The lowest option is Union Rags. Again, if he’s impressive in the final work on Friday or Saturday, he could go as low as 5-1 in a very competitive field of 20 horses. Should his work be dull or anything seem amiss afterwards, the pendulum could swing back to Bodemeister, given that his last two works are better than his unimpressive everyday gallops. But if Bob Baffert’s colt is the choice, he could go off as high as 7-1.

Does any member of the prospective Derby field appear to be going the wrong way?
It’s been an interesting year for Alpha, the Godolphin colt who is coming off a good runner-up effort behind unbeaten Gemologist in the Wood Memorial. He appeared to be one of this Derby’s many “now” horses after that outing, but then trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s colt missed four days of training after developing infection in cuts on the shin of his left foreleg suffered in the Wood. Then Alpha lost the services of jockey Ramon Dominguez, who chose to ride Hansen in the Derby.

Which horses appear to be going the right way late in the game?
Interesting things are happening in the barn of trainer Steve Asmussen, who seeks his first Kentucky Derby victory and has a pair of horses that appear to be coming around at the right time in Daddy Nose Best and Sabercat. The former has been as impressive as any of the Derby 138 horses training at Churchill Downs, and Asmussen feels the latter advanced significantly in his late-running third-place finish behind Bodemeister in the Arkansas Derby.

Of the Asmussen duo, Daddy Nose Best is looking most like the late-developing “wise guy” horse whose odds will drop during Derby Week. But Sabercat could be the horse that puts the trifecta or superfecta into the stratosphere with a big run at 35-1.

What is the most significant development in Derby 138 over the past few days?
The addition of star sprinter Trinniberg to the Derby field ensured a sizzling pace for the Derby and must give pause to both Bodemeister and Hansen, who figure to be close from the start on the first Saturday in May. Trainer Bisnath Parboo indicated earlier that the brilliantly fast Trinniberg might take an early position just behind the leaders, but that would be like Kentucky going to the NCAA tournament and shifting Anthony Davis to point guard. It’s hard to imagine Trinniberg being anywhere but on the lead out the gate in Derby 138, and he has the quality to carry the field well into the far turn. That could make Dominguez on Hansen and Mike Smith on Bodemeister press their respective buttons a bit earlier than they’d like, which would likely set the Derby up for a horse coming from off the pace.

Which horse might the Derby gods smile upon?
It’s hard to imagine that Optimizer might win the Derby, but if he manages to get into the field (graded earnings remain a question) his stretch run could be fueled by Laffit Pincay’s famed “little push” from above. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas has won four Derbys and a victory in this one would make the 76-year-old Hall of Famer the oldest trainer to saddle a winner of the “Run for the Roses.” He’d be just a few months older than legendary Charlie Whittingham when he notched his second Derby win with Sunday Silence in 1989. Optimizer is owned by Bluegrass Hall, which is owned by remarkable Kentucky success story Brad Kelley, who was rumored last week to have purchased racing’s near mythic Calumet Farm. If the reported Calumet deal is finalized before the Derby, there would be a lot of Derby magic behind Optimizer, who might be 50-1 when the crowd sings “My Old Kentucky Home” on May 5.

Who will be the favorite for the Kentucky Oaks?
The Oaks does not seem to be nearly as competitive as the Derby, although a full gate of 14 fillies might enter. It seems assured that either Anita Cauley’s On Fire Baby, trained by Shively-native Gary “Red Dog” Hartlage and ridden by stable rider Joe Johnson, or Grace Hall, runner-up in last fall’s Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, will be the fans’ choice. The guess here is that On Fire Baby will be a narrow choice, and Shively might never be the same following the celebration of an Oaks win by Hartlage. Upset possibilities: Karlovy Vary, And Why Not.

Asher Derby 138 Top 10 with a week to go:

  1. Union Rags
  2. Creative Cause
  3. Dullahan
  4. Take Charge Indy
  5. Hansen
  6. Gemologist
  7. Bodemeister
  8. I’ll Have Another
  9. Daddy Nose Best
  10. Went the Day Well